The stories and photos coming from Texas (and likely soon from Florida) are sobering and, some, heartbreaking – they are a reminder of what can happen and what did happen in a much smaller way in Palo Alto during the February 1998 winter storm.
Although unprecedented amounts of water fell on the Houston area, experts say ,  that among other measures, having and implementing zoning regulations could have minimize the impact of the storm.
A neighbor mentioned that she is opposed to regulating dewatering for basement construction because “we already have too many regulations”. While too many regulations might feel like being “nickeled and dimed”, what if those regulations actually improve our lives and our safety?
In the case of dewatering for underground construction, regulations that limit or eliminate the waste of shallow groundwater can protect this resource for use in future droughts. Additionally, instead of pumping this shallow groundwater and shunting it to the Bay, a sustainable amount of this groundwater could be used for current non-potable needs such as irrigation. This would decrease our use of ever more scarce and expensive potable water.
Beyond dewatering and with the floods in Houston in mind, we know that soils regulate the flow of stormwater (plus sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas). With ever more underground construction, we are removing this soil and it will no longer be available to retain stormwater and release it slowly over time. Thus, we increase the chances of flooding in our neighborhoods. As the failure of the Oroville dam demonstrates, flood protection infrastructure can be overwhelmed, despite the assurances of planners. And, when overwhelmed, the damage can be extreme.
With expected sea level rise the groundwater level will concurrently rise. As with underground construction, there will be less soil available to retain stormwater and release it slowly over time. This means that areas not currently in the FEMA flood zone are more likely to have flooding in the near future. Should we be building basements and underground garages in these areas? According to the USGS, underground construction in which the groundwater level is currently at 13 feet or less is at risk of flooding within its lifetime. For these reasons, shouldn’t we be regulating underground construction to ensure it’s in the right place and impacts are minimized?
Times and circumstances change. We should eschew regulations that are no longer applicable and enact regulations that reduce risks to public safety and protect our properties, infrastructure and natural resources such as shallow groundwater and soil. These resources are vital to our safety and well-being and that of future generations. We believe we all have a responsibility to see that these resources are not squandered and that private development doesn’t increase public risks.